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Credit: Nathana Rebouças on Unsplash

"It starts at home with not being able to label our emotions and understand what mental health is."

That was Fardowsa Ali speaking to me recently for a short BBC News film on racial disparities in mental health.

I came across the mental health advocate on Clubhouse a few weeks after I joined the invite-only audio app last December.

I signed up initially to see what the hype was about. But the timing was perfect. A major contributor for my film had dropped out and I was looking for fresh voices.

I was pleasantly surprised by the number of Clubhouse discussions on mental wellbeing and the noticeable presence of black women on the app — the demographic being discussed in my report.

Fardowsa’s eventual contribution, alongside that of two other Clubhouse users, made for a strong feature on the BBC website. My report was in the ‘Must see’ slot on the day of publication and one of the most-watched during the morning hours.

You can watch the full five-minute film here.

Clubhouse for newsgathering

If you are looking for diverse voices and inspiration for fresh story ideas, then Clubhouse is a good bet.

Yes, it can seem full of technology and start-up discussions. But at any one time, users are chatting – live – about a range of topics, from the light-hearted to the serious.

I heard activists organising justice campaigns, female users talking about the “under-diagnosis” of ADHD in women, black beekeepers exchanging tips, Muslim women reacting to French hijab restrictions, mum entrepreneurs talking about their successes, and black fathers swapping notes.

Discussions on the app are not US or Euro-centric. They are also held in several languages including Arabic and Japanese. In fact, from my own observations, there are large user bases in countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Kenya, Sudan and Nigeria.

The attraction is partly a result of the FOMO effect, especially early on. To be a user, you need someone already on the app to invite you.

It is also less of a hassle to join discussions. You do not need your camera turned on or prepare talking points. For many, the app’s format gives it the intimacy of listening to a podcast or a talk-radio show or the two combined.

Increasingly, politicians and public figures are joining. I have seen, for example, Somali presidential candidates come on the app and answer questions. Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Oprah Winfrey have also famously made appearances on the platform.

So what else do we know about the users?

Many are sharing their stories for the first time on Clubhouse because they found it comfortable. They found their "tribe."

The app had about 13.4 million in late March, according to research firm App Annie. Clubhouse has not revealed the full breakdown of their demographics. Analysis website Audiense estimates 39 per cent of users are between 25–34 years old. Meanwhile, men and women appear to use the app almost in equal measures.

This tallies with my own observations.

Many are sharing their stories for the first time on Clubhouse because they found it comfortable. They found their “tribe”. The app is also a useful place to share back as journalists. There is an appetite for intelligent discussions.

In January, my BBC colleague and friend Sumaya Bakhsh and I held an hour of discussion on Yemen in light of the 10th anniversary of the Arab protest movement. We timed it to Sumaya’s radio report on the subject.

A few weeks later, we just chatted about cats and everything you need to know about owning one. (She is the cat mummy).

In March, I hosted another BBC colleague and author, Dhruti Shah, to talk about her fact-checking and verification processes as an investigative journalist who sources stories and case studies online.

We also talked about doxxing.

Of course, everything good about Clubhouse right now can change by this time next year.

The big question is whether the one-year old app owes its success to the lockdowns. Can it survive once people go back to their normal lives?

We also know the audio app market is starting to become crowded, with big players like Twitter and Facebook releasing or planning competing products.

Concerns

The biggest downside for me about Clubhouse is the apparent lack of effective moderation.

From my experience, the app has a small but persistent cohort of trolls and bullies.

I have emailed Clubhouse more than month ago about a nasty experience I have had with users doxxing me and sending me threatening messaging on Twitter. These people are still on the app.

Another concern is about privacy. Once you join the app, people on your phone contact list and who are already on Clubhouse are notified. No choice about joining quietly.

It also seems people you do not have saved on your phone but who have your number saved are also notified.

This can mean individuals you never wanted to engage with on social media are told, with a megaphone notification, about your arrival on the app.

This is a mere inconvenience for many, but for many others, especially women, it is a traumatic experience. Imagine a former abusive partner or a stalker who has your number saved is notified of your presence.

Newsrewired conference: Tips on using Clubhouse for journalists

So how does Clubhouse actually work and how can you make the most of it as a journalist?

For a start, you need an iPhone or an iPad, plus an invite from a current user.

Everything happens live, in real-time on the app.

Nothing is recorded.

Discussions take place in virtual rooms. You can set one up yourself or join ones started by others.

If you’re on "stage" as a moderator or speaker, you have access to the mic.

Everyone else is listening in the “audience”. They can raise their hands and ask to be allowed to talk.

I will be sharing specific tips and what works for me during the Newsrewired Conference, held virtually this year from18 May.

Topics I will be covering include:

  • How to optimise the bio section for different topics.
  • How to curate your timeline (Hallway).
  • How to find and reach out to potential contributors (ethically and sensitively).
  • How to start and moderate discussions effectively using Clubhouse tools.
  • How to protect yourself against trolls and doxxers.
  • This article was originally published on Medium and is republished here with permission.

This article was originally published on Medium and is republished here with permission. Book your tickets for the Newsrewired conference here

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